Part one of the tale ends this way:
“Now, enough about dying,” Nathan said brightly. “You just give your grandmother a big hug when you see her and tell her that you love her. That is all that really matters.” He wanted to hug the little girl himself and pat her hand to comfort her in her distress, but he did not dare. Surely someone would accuse him of terrible things, and he wondered again what sort of world they had become. All he could do was lift his heart in a kind of prayer for this little soul while the bus brakes brought them to the next stop. The big man started to get up as the doors opened, but before he could move far, someone jumped in and ran right past the driver babbling something about paradise and Satan and you demons. The minister hid behind his paper. The Bus driver grabbed and missed. The big burly man also made a grab, but it was too late. Nathan instinctively threw himself over the little girl like a shield of flesh and blood. There was a deafening sound, a moment of pain, a brilliant, blinding light and then nothing.
When my son read it he said it was going to be a very short story, but in truth this is where the story begins.
Nathan opened his eyes. He was sitting on a park bench up on a grassy knoll, looking through an iron picket fence at a very confusing street scene. People were running around, screaming, while cars and trucks were screeching to a halt in both directions and things, big pieces of things were falling from the sky. Nathan felt the little hand in his hand and he looked down to see Mya stare up at him. Her legs dangled from the edge of the bench where they did not quite reach the ground.
“I think we are dead,” Mya said. There was no sorrow, no fear and no surprise in her voice. She just simply said it outright like it was the most obvious fact.
“No.” Nathan quickly shook his head. “We were blown free of the explosion, weren’t we?” They were blown free to land perfectly side by side on a park bench? He wondered. Perhaps they crawled up on the bench before they became fully aware of what they were doing?
“I think we are dead.” Mya repeated herself and she turned her eyes from his old face to the strange goings on in the street. She held his hand, too, or rather her little hand was engulfed in his wrinkled old paw, but she seemed perfectly content with that and in no hurry to break free.
“No.” Nathan said it again, but there was no conviction in his word. He also looked to the street and realized that everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. Pieces of the bus were still falling and bouncing very slowly off the pavement. People were still screaming in long, drawn out sounds while tires were still screeching; and after a moment they both felt something low and loud in the pit of their stomachs which tickled as the pitch rose up the scale. Mya giggled at the feeling while Nathan identified it. “The police. Maybe an ambulance.”
“Too late,” Mya said, a deep sadness echoed finally in the midst of her giggle. She looked again at the face of the old man beside her.
“We can’t be dead,” Nathan protested. “That would make us ghosts.” He turned his eyes again to that innocent little face, but she looked away. She straightened her legs and stared at her shoes.
“I’m afraid of ghosts,” she said.
Nathan did what he wanted to do, the world be damned. He dropped the girl’s hand and put his arm tenderly and lovingly around the little girl’s shoulder and hugged her as he spoke. “I won’t let any bad ghosts get you. Hush. Everything will be all right.” And they watched for a long time while police cars, ambulances, fire trucks and tow trucks all showed up; while men and women did the work for which they were trained and the innocent pedestrians backed away but stared long and hard at all of the broken pieces scattered in the street and along the side of the road. They watched the traffic start again, slowly, and it seemed forever that only one lane moved at a time. The cars and trucks went very slowly besides, not to be careful of the workers in the street, but because the people wanted to gawk at the scene. Last of all, there were cameras and reporters who came to make a record of it all for the evening news. That was when Nathan let out the sigh he thought he had used up, and he looked down again at the little girl beside him. She was looking up at him, her face a little closer to his than he imagined it would be, and she lifted her hand to touch his face once more, even as she touched him in the bus. Nathan stayed silent and did not move. He let the girl examine his ancient eyes.
“You’re not as old as you were before,” Mya concluded. “You don’t look as old as my grandmother anymore.”
Nathan took his arm back and Mya sat up while he looked down at his hands. He still saw the wrinkles and the age spots, though perhaps not so bad. The power of suggestion? Surely his suit was as wrinkled as ever. He looked at the girl and noticed her legs were not dangling so much. She could touch the ground with her toes, but then he told himself that this was the way it was before, only he had not seen properly. He rubbed his eyes and spoke. “Your grandmother is in the hospital?” This time it was a question.
“Yes.” Mya slipped her hands beneath her tight covered thighs in order to let her legs swing free.
Nathan looked to the sky to judge the time. The hospital was a long walk, but curiously he felt up to it. Certainly he did not feel up to trying another bus. “I know how to get there. Would you like to go there and see her?” He thought they could reasonably arrive before dark. “I could go with you,” he added, in case she did not catch the implication.
Mya looked up at him once again and nodded. “Mother says Grandma is dying. Maybe Grandma could help us.” The girl made no explanation about what she was thinking, but she also made no move to get off the park bench, so Nathan stood. He got up like a well practiced old man, expecting his knees to scream, his lower back to protest and his stiff neck to make itself known, but none of those things happened. To be sure, Nathan felt a little frightened when he realized that he felt nothing at all. The forever pain, arthritis, agonizing stiffness and constant struggle against gravity were all gone. Maybe they really were ghosts. He tried not to think about it too hard and reached instead for Mya’s hand. He needed her reassuring touch.
Mya looked up and readily put her hand in his, and Nathan understood she needed his touch as well. “You are a very nice man,” she said. Nathan accepted that on face value. He did not know she had decided that he was a kind, older gentleman. She trusted him, and even more importantly, she liked him. Mya never knew her grandfather. She was only three when he died, but she thought that this man might be like him. She felt safe when she held his hand, and so she took it readily and they began to walk, side by side, to find a place where they could get beyond the fence and back to the sidewalk.
Nathan’s concern grew with each step about what exactly was going on. He walked easily and without pain of any kind. It was not that he felt he could run or dance or anything like that, but his lack of pain appeared to be the last nail in the coffin, so to speak. He said as much at last. “I think we’re dead.”
“I know that we are.” Mya spoke without so much as lifting her eyes. She was thinking about something and probably thinking about many things, and there was a little tear in the corner of her eye. They came to a gate in the fence and stopped so Nathan turned to the girl who was now taller than his wrist but not yet as tall as his elbow, and he put one hand on each of her shoulders and bent down a little to garner her full attention.
“Now, how do you know we are dead?” He asked, and he tried to smile his most reassuring smile.
Mya said nothing. She simply pointed at her feet and Nathan looked down at two perfectly normal shoes. He started to shake his head before he gasped. He had forgotten that she was lame, a cripple with a misshapen foot. He had forgotten all about the funny shoe which had evidently been designed to help her walk. He looked at the girl’s feet and honestly could not remember which foot it was. Both shoes looked identical and normal, and Nathan had no doubt the feet inside were normal, too. He let go and took a step back. Mya looked up at him and showed some fear. Her eyes said, please don’t leave me. I don’t want to be alone.
Nathan caught the look and returned one hand to pat the girl gently on the shoulder. “Let’s go see your grandmother,” he said, and then he turned toward the gate and tried hard not to hesitate. He was not sure if he could open the simple latch, being a little afraid that his ghost hand might pass right through the solid metal. That would have frightened him perhaps beyond repair, so it took a great deal of courage to get his fingers to reach out. When he took hold of the latch, he let out his breath and heard Mya do the same. The gate easily swung open, and then Nathan stepped aside “After you,” he said, graciously and raised his hand in an inviting gesture. Mya smiled for him.
“Thank you,” she said and tried very hard to sound and act like a real lady as they stepped out of the gate and back into the real, everyday world. Nathan made sure to close the gate tight behind them.